Medically reviewed on Jan 11, 2018
Nasal congestion or "stuffy nose" occurs when nasal and adjacent tissues and blood vessels become swollen with excess fluid, causing a "stuffy" feeling. Nasal congestion may or may not be accompanied by a nasal discharge or "runny nose."
Nasal congestion usually is just an annoyance for older children and adults. But nasal congestion can be serious for children whose sleep is disturbed by their nasal congestion, or for infants, who might have a hard time feeding as a result.
Nasal congestion can be caused by anything that irritates or inflames the nasal tissues. Infections — such as colds, flu or sinusitis — allergies and various irritants, such as tobacco smoke, may all cause a runny nose. Some people have a chronically runny nose for no apparent reason — a condition called nonallergic rhinitis or vasomotor rhinitis (VMR).
Less commonly, nasal congestion can be caused by polyps or a tumor.
Potential causes of nasal congestion include:
- Acute sinusitis (sinus infection)
- Chronic sinusitis
- Churg-Strauss syndrome
- Common cold
- Decongestant nasal spray overuse
- Deviated septum
- Drug addiction (substance use disorder)
- Dry air
- Enlarged adenoids
- Foreign body in the nose
- Granulomatosis with polyangiitis (Wegener's)
- Hormonal changes
- Influenza (flu)
- Medications, such as high blood pressure drugs
- Nasal polyps
- Nonallergic rhinitis (chronic congestion or sneezing not related to allergies)
- Occupational asthma
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Thyroid disorders
- Tobacco smoke
When to see a doctor
A stuffy or runny nose is generally just an annoyance. But it can be a sign of a more serious problem, and it may be serious in infants.
Call your doctor if:
- Your symptoms last more than 10 days.
- You have a high fever.
- Your nasal discharge is yellow or green and is accompanied by sinus pain or fever. This may be a sign of a bacterial infection.
- You have blood in your nasal discharge or a persistent clear discharge after a head injury.
Call your child's doctor if:
- Your child is younger than 2 months and has a fever.
- Your baby's runny nose or congestion causes trouble nursing or makes breathing difficult.
Until you see your doctor, try these simple steps to relieve symptoms:
- Sniffing and swallowing or gently blowing your nose.
- Avoid known allergic triggers.
- If the runny nose is a persistent, watery discharge, particularly if accompanied by sneezing and itchy or watery eyes, your symptoms may be allergy-related, and an over-the-counter antihistamine may help. Be sure to follow the label instructions exactly.
- For babies and small children, use a soft, rubber-bulb syringe to gently remove any secretions.
Try these measures to relieve postnasal drip — when excess mucus accumulates in the back of your throat:
- Avoid common irritants such as cigarette smoke and sudden humidity changes.
- Drink plenty of water because fluid helps thin nasal secretions.
- Try nasal saline sprays or rinses.